Last updated: 13 October, 2011

Egypt aims to resolve thorny issue of church permits

Egypt’s government said Thursday it would discuss the sensitive issue of building permits for Christian churches at the heart of sectarian tensions in the overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The announcement came as nearly 3,000 mourners gathered in central Cairo for a candlelight vigil in honour of Coptic Christians among 25 people killed in weekend clashes during a demonstration over an attack on a church.

Information Minister Osama Haikal said a commission would be formed to “examine all the incidents that erupted in recent months because of conflicts around the churches.”

The commission would be tasked with finding a way to “stop these incidents happening again,” he told state television.

The cabinet and the military, which has run Egypt since president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February, wanted to “address the situation of the Christian places of worship without a licence anywhere in the republic,” said Haikal.

Later at the vigil in Cairo’s Talaat Harb square, demonstrators demanded Haikal be held accountable for the “biased” coverage of Sunday’s violence by state television.

About 200 of them carried candles in memory of the “martyrs” as Christians were joined by Muslims in calling for the perpetrators of the deadly clashes to be tried.

“Arrest the officers responsible for the massacre of Maspero,” said one of the signs they brandished, referring to the Cairo neighbourhood that was the venue of the violence.

“This is not a religious conflict but a military massacre,” they chanted, and “The people want the fall of (Field) Marshal” Hussein Tantawi, who has headed the country since Mubarak’s overthrow.

Copts, who comprise roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million population, say the laws on obtaining building or renovation permits for churches are overly restrictive, and that Muslims enjoy much a more liberal regime for mosques.

The government had said on May 11, after deadly unrest, that it would prepare within a month legislation to lift restrictions on church building and banning demonstrations outside places of worship.

The military insisted on Wednesday that soldiers did not kill any protesters during Sunday’s unrest.

Coptic witnesses said that they were fired upon by soldiers during the march and that several protesters were killed when armoured vehicles ran over and crushed them. Most of the dead were Copts.